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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 114-136

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Fiction and the Law: Recent Inscriptions of Gayness in South Africa

Tim Trengove Jones

I. Public Spheres

On 13 October 1990, the first South African Gay Pride parade was held in Johannesburg. On behalf of the African National Congress, Albie Sachs, at the time a member of the ANC's Constitutional committee, sent a message of support. "Many would like to see a new constitution in South Africa," he wrote, "[one] that guarantees members of the lesbian and gay community full protection against any form of discrimination" (Address). Sachs's message was dedicated to Cecil Williams, the man being driven by Nelson Mandela at the time of Mandela's arrest outside Howick in August 1962.

Almost exactly eight years after the first Pride parade, on 31 October 1998, we saw the South African premiere of Mark Gevisser's documentary film, The Man Who Drove with Mandela. The genesis of this film, Gevisser noted, was Sachs's remark to him that if one wanted to trace the ANC's growing commitment to gay rights, one should look to Cecil Williams. Based on Williams's life, the film was largely funded by the Department of Art, Culture, Science and Technology. Mandela could not attend, but he sent a message saying that he hoped those present enjoyed the evening. This time, Sachs was there in person. Now a judge in the constitutional court, Sachs explicitly linked the achievements of the new South Africa to those of gays and lesbians in this country. Drawing on what is a loaded phrase for gay people, Sachs classified our time as "a period of coming out": "It's not just the gay and lesbian community that [End Page 114] is coming out," he enthused. "The truth has been coming out [. . .]. We're all coming out [. . .and] we've become a better nation." "Gay energy," he concluded, "is contributing something rich and strong and new" to South African public life (Speech).

Sachs's rhetoric is very much a sign of our times. It mimics many of the crucial elements of a nascent governing narrative in the new South Africa and itself contributes to the remaking of our public discourse. The air--and arias--of emancipation are all around us. We see in these notionally postcolonial, postapartheid times a reprise of an enlightenment faith in the presiding genius of reason and truth: truth is knowable and the truth will set us free (Ignatieff 170). This faith propels what I call the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ethos of the day (Trengove Jones, "No" 17). Accounts of contemporary culture characteristically align the language of "reconstruction" with that of transparency and truth ("truth [. . .] coming out"), amelioration and renewal ("a better nation"; "strong and new"). There is a preoccupation with the buried history, the fact withheld, the embarrassing--often nauseating--disclosure. Guilt, and strategies of expiation and recuperation, are staples. Questions of identity are unavoidable. Mike Nicol's The Ibis Tapestry (1998) stands, arguably, as the most compelling, sustained treatment of these issues in recent South African fiction (Trengove Jones, "Fiction" 139), while Sachs's claim--made in 1989--that "[w]e all know where South Africa is, but we do not yet know what it is" ("Preparing" 117), remains axiomatic.

Sachs's celebratory remarks at the launch of Gevisser's film are representative in another way: they capture and replicate the discourse of pluralism and human rights, two concepts claimed as chapter headings in our new governing narrative. The incorporationist thread of this narrative is exemplified in Bishop Tutu's coinage "the Rainbow Nation," while the discourse of human rights is fundamental to the liberation struggle and has been institutionalized in the Bill of Rights, the new constitution, and the Constitutional Court. The truly scandalous element in Sachs's remarks, however, lies in the way he assumes that a group previously reviled and persecuted by the state, and despised by many of its citizens, has emerged as valued citizens of the new polis. From being publicly and officially rejected, gay people...


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